Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Peace-Making in the Time of the Mid-Llfe Sex Wars

I'm no different than anyone else -- I crave love and intimacy, but it doesn't always work out. As a life-long feminist and sex fiend, though, it might be a little, shall we say, highlighted a conflict in my life. When I married my wife in 1997, I thought I had beaten the system. My wife is much younger than I am, and from the beginning we had a great relationship. We were friends before we were lovers, we've always fought fairly with each other, and there was always a strong physical attraction between us. However, like the rest of the middle-aged sad-sacks who write to Dear Abby, there was a huge shift in our love life after we had kids.

Some of it was straightforward -- my wife was a radical breastfeeder and we had a family bed with attachment parenting -- the whole bit. I don't know about you, but it's difficult for me to be intimate with my wife when there are other people in the bed. Okay, no big deal, we were both tired all the time anyway, and the kids will grow up one day, and then, oh boy..! There were some other issues, too, associated with having three C-sections, but my wife's health improved, the boys got into their own beds, and...nuthin'. Oh, I don't mean we never had sex, but whereas it was still a very powerful, central facet of my life, my wife seemed to become much more take it or leave it in her approach to our love life.

I can't describe, although you can probably imagine, all the havoc this change in our marital dynamic created. I have always had a very strong sex drive, and still do, and it so happens my wife is pretty much my erotic ideal. Every day I have been her partner (24 years) I have been shocked and thrilled to find such a beautiful, sexy woman in my bed. Still, she's not a piece of furniture to be sat upon, and if her heart's not in it, neither is mine. That doesn't mean that I simply accept my lot, though. Oh, no. It is an exquisite discomfort, being at the height of your game professionally, socially and politically, but to be completely powerless over this most basic, vital aspect of your private life. Oh, the tantrums I've thrown! No one has to be at fault for people to suffer, but of course it's natural that people feel guilty when their loved ones are unhappy, then the unhappy person overcompensates, and before you know it you're in the middle of a John Updike novel.

My thinking about this came to an abrupt head last week, though, when the latest mass-murdering lunatic put out as part of his excuse that he was a member of "the incel rebellion." Part of the insanity of the internet is that it allows every fringe group of nutjobs to name themselves and their cause and pretend that naming it makes it relevant. "Incel" means "involuntarily celibate," and so the "incel rebellion" is a bunch of frustrated, horny men who can't get laid, and are evidently willing to kill strangers over their personal frustrations and failings with women. Well, as an honest man that brought me up short. If I continued along the line of "reasoning" that led to my sexual frustration tantrums it led pretty directly to "the incel rebellion." Say what you will about me, I ain't no mass murderer, and I don't want to be on any continuum that includes mass murderers.

So I had to think a little harder about how to understand my situation. As a body/mind/spirit practitioner I think that every spiritual problem also has an intellectual and physical component, every intellectual problem also has a physical and spiritual component, and every physical problem also has an intellectual and spiritual component. I had mostly been experiencing physical "deprivation," and responding with emotional/spiritual outrage, followed up by a bunch of feverish intellectual rationalization and attempts to coerce physical love from my wife. I tried to see things from her point of view, but it kept sounding like, "Oh, I'm just not that into it [you] any more." That sort of statement stops any man but a rapist dead in his tracks, and further tends to crush his self-confidence, ego, etc. When the kids were little and my wife said something like, "There are always hands grabbing at me! I just want to get some sleep!" I could understand it, even if I still suffered. But now, with half-grown or mostly grown kids, what's the hold-up?! I kept getting stuck at the emotionally painful spot and couldn't see any further into the situation in a way that might provide some solace or some possible way of moving forward. I think I had an insight the other day, though, and would like to share it with you.

As frequently happens, I was talking to a patient about his problems and free-associating when I had my "aha!" moment. This patient is a few years older than I am, and is much further down the road of marital discord than my wife and I. He and his wife don't touch any more, they actively avoid each other, seek affection outside their marriage and are only still together "for the sake of the kids." A very sad situation, but one that I can imagine all too easily. As we were talking the other day and I was casting about for some way to make Chinese medical philosophy more accessible to this Western rationalist, I suddenly got onto a thread of a thought. As I followed it in conversation the thread turned into a rope, and after doing a little research I now think I might be weaving an actual piece of inspired fabric about this common but unfortunate trend in long-term sexual relationships.

Oxytocin is sometimes called "the love hormone." It is most commonly spoken of in relation to breastfeeding and maternal bonding with children, but it is also associated with romance and the physiological responses of sex, including erections and orgasm. Some studies have been done about oxytocin in different contexts, but as far as I could tell, no one has tried to examine the dynamic that occurred to me. In some of the few candid, non-confrontational conversations my wife and I have had about our altered sex life, we have both agreed that, while my response to sex is unchanged (very eager anticipation, followed by a low-level high that can last the rest of the day), she is much less affected by sex than she used to be. Even if she has orgasms and otherwise has a very satisfying sexual encounter, she doesn't particularly look forward to it, nor does it have much lasting impact on her day. She didn't object much when I said, "It sounds like you'd get the same amount of pleasure and satisfaction from making me a sandwich." Which is actually just about a perfect analogy for what I think happens in women who have had children, and maybe especially women who have breastfed for extended periods of time.

In a childless woman, all her oxytocin is free to be devoted to romance, orgasm, and bonding with a romantic partner. However, once she has a child the bulk of her oxytocin is diverted to this other task of  making milk and feeding and bonding with her child. Science seems to say pretty clearly that child-rearing is the primary role for oxytocin, so this isn't pathology but simple biology. Once this powerful hormone becomes primarily associated with the decidedly non-sexual but still thrilling and captivating experience of feeding and bonding with her baby, romance, sexual arousal and even orgasm become associated with oxytocin in a secondary way. That is, sex and romantic love are overwhelmed by, subsumed by and associated with non-sexual bonding and feeding her baby. In other words, sex becomes about as fulfilling as making someone a sandwich.

For me, a physiological explanation for an emotional experience is very useful -- it helps to take the sting out, in some cases, and it also helps me come up with new approaches for addressing the emotional situation. In this case, I feel a lot better about my "manhood," or at least about my desirability, sexual prowess and attractiveness. On another hand, it suggests some ways I might move forward in my sexual relationship with my wife. Although vanilla is my favorite sexual flavor, and I mostly am seeking comfort, intimacy and connection with my wife through lovemaking, I can see how all of that might feel to her like "sandwich." So while I continue to await her initiation of vanilla love-making, I am now spending some time trying to come up with novel, fantastic, taboo or other, non-sandwich types of stimulation of her oxytocin. While it makes me feel a little silly, it also makes sense to me, in many ways. When "50 Shades of Grey" is an international bestseller among middle-aged women, a smart husband sits up and tries to understand the phenomenon.

From the perspective of a practitioner of Chinese medicine I am flying blind with these ideas. The classics of Chinese sexology all were written at a time when the intended audience (educated aristocratic men) would have had multiple wives and concubines. The main emphasis was on sexually satisfying multiple women without exhausting yourself. If a middle-aged woman in ancient China  started thinking "sandwich," the husband would have moved on to another wife or concubine who was more interested in sex as sex. Sticking with one wife and trying to develop a life-long romantic and sexual relationship is a modern, Western idea. However, without any question, starting from a Chinese viewpoint and seeking the Western scientific ideas I need to inform an idea is now my standard operating procedure, in my office and in my bedroom.

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